Every shooter has their preferences for what they want in a pistol, and there is a myriad of designs and options available today. But every shooter’s choice comes down to these three virtues: a pistol that functions flawlessly, is comfortable to shoot, and will meet the specific needs of the shooter. Once you clear away the hype and focus on answering these needs, the classics always re-emerge–proving it is difficult to improve on perfection.
And when it comes to perfection, the designs by John Moses Browning (1855-1926) stand out. He was awarded 128 U.S. patents during his lifetime, and the last one he received–months after his death–was for a semiautomatic pistol that still bears his name today: the Browning High Power.
A Need Borne in the Great War The development of the High Power began in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I. (1914-1918). The French military was caught off guard when it came to issuing their troops a modern pistol or revolver. They were woefully ill-prepared to equip their army with a satisfactory sidearm. Shortly after the war, the French military issued what in today’s parlance would be called a Request for Proposal, or RFP, to produce a semiautomatic pistol with a large magazine, holding 16 rounds or more of 7.65 or 9mm.
Fabrique Nationale D’ Armes de Guerre, known today as FN, was an arms manufacturing consortium created in the arms-making region of Belgium in 1888 originally founded to manufacture the Model 1889 Mauser for the Belgian Army. John Browning had entered into a partnership with FN in 1896 to handle his European arms sales and often took patents and designs for firearms to FN that Colt and Winchester declined to produce. FN commissioned Browning to design a gun meeting the requirements of the French military.
Browning was not initially excited about the prospects for a high-capacity pistol in 7.65 or 9mm. Why would you need 16 rounds from a 9mm when 7 rounds from a .45 ACP would be more than effective? Besides, he had a contract with Colt to produce the Model 1911 with exclusive rights to many of his own semiautomatic pistol patents.
At this point a new character entered the stage of firearms designers, a man whose name should also be a household word, same as Browning, Winchester, or Colt. Okay, the name Dieudonné Joseph Saive (1889–1973) doesn’t flow off the lips with the same effortlessness of the others, but he is directly responsible for many of the firearms designs that are still incorporated in most semiautomatics produced today. The High Power, the FN/FAL, and the F49 are just a few of his contributions.
In 1922, Saive, who was working at FN with Browning, brought him a design for a magazine that staggered the rounds instead of lining them up in a straight column. It would hold the desired 16 rounds, yet wouldn’t extend the profile of the firearms grip nor make it so wide that it would be difficult for the shooter to handle. Browning refined the magazine design and developed a new barrel lockup scheme that got around his own patents that were incorporated in the Colt 1911.
The result was a series of patents applied for in 1923 that would be the foundation for the “Grand Rendement” (The High Efficiency) pistol that eventually became known the world over in 1935 as the “Grand Puissance” (High Power).
This design was John Moses Browning’s last hurrah. He collapsed and died in his Liege offices on November 26, 1926, leaving behind a legacy that has been unrivaled in the annals of firearms design.
A Posthumous Success Story Saive continued Browning’s work, and the pistol, with a 13-round magazine, was adopted by the Belgian Army in 1935. It was a simple but ingenious design that eliminated the cam and link system of delaying the blowback of the barrel and slide by incorporating a bar, or ledge, to disengage the barrel from the slide. This allows the rearward motion of the action to extract the spent casing and place a new round into battery.
The French passed on the design and went with a model that was developed and produced in France, but the rest of the world beat a path to the doors of FN in hopes of securing a contract for what would easily become the most produced and popular 9mm pistol of the 20th century.
In May of 1940, with the factory floors at FN busy with the production of a dozen different designs, the German army quickly overran Belgium and the Low Countries, seizing the arms making centers of Liege. They continued producing some nearly 300,000 High Power pistols under the code name “640 (b)” at the FN factory before it was liberated in August of 1944.
Saive fled Belgium as the Nazi’s approached, taking with him many of the blueprints and machinist drawings needed to produce the High Power. He brought them to England with him. The Canadians, using Saive’s drawings, established a factory and made hundreds of thousands of High Powers for the British and Commonwealth troops, as well for the Chinese, well into the 1950s.
Still a Top Choice The High Power was eventually adopted or used in significant numbers by nearly 50 countries. It was chambered in 9mm, .30 Luger, and .40 caliber, and is being manufactured and used to this day in all corners of the globe.
My favorite High Power story took place in Iraq in 2003, when I was an embedded War Correspondent for American Rifleman magazine and television. I was inspecting an arms cache near Mosul with a first sergeant from the 101st Airborne. He was carrying, as his sidearm, an Iraqi Tariq 9mm pistol, a licensed copy of the Beretta Model 1951. I asked him why he wasn’t carrying the standard-issue Beretta M9. He replied that he had heard the M9’s magazines were prone to stoppages and he wanted something reliable.
I asked, “Why don’t you use one of these High Powers in this arms cache? It’s one of the finest 9mms ever made.”
He replied that he wasn’t familiar with it, and, he was able to get ample magazines for the Tariq.
We searched through the rest of the captured arms and found a beautiful Belgian-made High Power and a dozen magazines. After testing it at the gun range, the sergeant fell in love with the High Power, and it never left his side.
Many rare and unique Brownings, including High Powers, are on display at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia. Some stories of Browning’s other achievements can be found at www.nramuseums.com.